Belarus: To Survive in a Homophobic Society with the Homophobic Government

Uladzimir Shcherban of the Free Belarus Theatre based in London talks to Ihar Ivanou, a Committee member of Quest. This interview was originally published by the Belarusian web magazine, New Europe, in October 2011.

You planed a career of a Catholic priest in Belarus, and then changed your mind. Why?

Career – it’s a bit misleading word, perhaps. At some point, almost all Catholic boys contemplate becoming a priest. In every country where the life is particularly difficult Catholics are tempted to resolve some of those difficulties through priesthood; gays – especially.

You were invited to London by the head of the Belarusian Catholic community there.

That’s right. At that time, I was working at a Roman Catholic publishing house in Minsk. Some of my best friends were in London studying theology and I thought: theology would be a good option for me too. Then, a notion of secular theologians has not crossed my mind yet – it was a pretty unknown in our country, therefore I started thinking about priesthood. That was how I got to London.


Sexuality often has to deal with a variety of fears

When did you come to understand that you were gay?

I think I was aware of it quite early, but I couldn’t make sense of it, I didn’t know a notion which could describe what I felt. I grew up in the Soviet Union and, at that time, did not come across of being gay and could not associate it with myself.

So, how did all that happen to you then?

In my case, I didn’t have to persuade myself or come out to myself, all happened in quite a mystical way. At that time, I was part of a charismatic community, which mostly consisted of young people. A covered conflict inside me was becoming increasingly disturbing: I started having episodes of depression. I remember it was on Sunday; we gathered for a prayer meeting, we were praying and singing together. At one point I had what I can only describe as a vision, like a word written in a neon light of street advertisements: gay. Actually, the word was homosexual. I think I got immersed deeply into my own reality and when that vision came I knew it related to me –all my life suddenly got a clearer meaning to me through that word. In distress, I sat down on the floor and got silent. I was terrified and I didn’t speak until the end of the day. I stopped going to the charismatic community, I couldn’t image having a place there. I also stopped going to my Eastern Catholic parish.

Did you tell anyone about that?

I don’t think I was ready. At that moment I only could think about it as a problem. I wanted someone to help me – I was looking for compassion. I didn’t find anything like that – neither churches, nor the society had yet done any thinking about people in my situation. After four months, I went back to my parish.

But now you had a secret…

Now I had a concept, a name for it… Later, in London I got access to theological literature; Catholic theology turned out to be quite gay friendly. It doesn’t reject rational knowledge, science; it assumes that the Creator is revealed in the creation – alongside scripture – and can also be known by observing the world with the mind open to such learning. It’s more complex with sexuality, because it is so much associated with morality; therefore there is so much fear there. What we hear from the hierarchy today is not exactly what the full body of the Catholic theological tradition has to say on this matter.

Once I came across gay Catholics on the internet. Just a year before, when I was in Belarus, I couldn’t even imagine anything like that. Initially, I was afraid to contact them, but eventually – by then I was on the second year of my BA in theology – I wrote an email. From that moment, my life has radically changed: I started talking to people who, as I, were Catholics, who instinctively understood my realities; they were ready to support without asking anything in exchange. I found the space where I could start quietly untangling the knots. Then I stumbled upon a brilliant book, Faith beyond Resentment, by James Alison…

A good title…

Indeed! James is a Catholic priest and openly gay – the latter has made impossible for him to stay with Dominicans whom he joined soon after leaving school. This book taught me how not to make myself a victim unnecessarily. The following summer I went back to Minsk with a thought that the most precious thing I could do for myself was to start creating a space for acknowledging an uncomfortable, but undeniable truth of who I was. I lost interest in lying, which was sustained by fear – an alternative seemed so much more attractive. James gently pushed me to looking beyond that fear; not to panic and not to fight it, not to ruin all straight away, but to start dealing with that fear, step by step. Soon all became clearer: I didn’t want the life I lived until then, I wanted something new, totally new.

How the Belarusian priest who made your studies in London possible responded to that?

His attitude was wary, positive up to a point: if I kept my secret to myself, if I didn’t waste – as he understood it – my life, if I weren’t a source of scandals and problems for the Church, he’d be on my side.  We spoke about that several times. My decision not to be a priest, but to come out instead, was a big setback for him and caused a lot of distress. However, when I needed accommodation, he agreed to offer it; when I needed job, he gave me one at the Belarusian library in London. Now, I quite often go to the Belarusian Centre in north London, I stay there for celebrations and holidays, go to church… Of course, he hasn’t become gay-friendly; it’d be unfair to demand from him. Saying that, he made an effort to be a receptive and coherent priest despite challenges my situation presented him with.


The society is shaped by the mechanism of marginalisation of those who differ

You are a member of Quest – an organisation for LGBT Catholics. It seems to me the majority of people are perplexed how sexual “freethinking” and religious belief can co-exist.

I guess it’s impossible to avoid a collision of sexuality and religious belief in any case. All religions have been keen on controlling sexuality: it is right at the centre of a human being; if religion doesn’t control sexual identity and behaviour, it doesn’t control a person. For that reason, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims are told to abstain from sexual relations during fasting; Roman Catholics are supposed to limit sexual life to marriage, and their priests have no option but celibacy.

Quest doesn’t really advocate any particular agenda except the idea of integrating sexuality and faith. People should be allowed to discover and explore truth themselves. It is a very Catholic approach: Catholic theology speaks about grace working in our lives, leading us to our blossoming, which cannot be hidden away. For that reason, Quest doesn’t tell anyone: a same-sex relationship would be good for you, or that one doesn’t have a choice except celibacy. In the first place, it is a group of mutual support: we support you because you’ve been looking for that support, you’ve decided on what terms you’d like to have it, and because you offer a hand to others. Quest is a safe, supportive place for people to explore, to make their mind, to start offering that support and safety to others.

In Quest, I met my partner and that relationship has been of tremendous importance: in a safe space of a loving relationship I could start working seriously on my life. To be more precise, I could relax with who I was – I was loved! – and start putting the pieces of myself together in such an order, which I could eventually start enjoying. A loving relationship – in whatever shape – is by far more sustaining than any intellectual ideas or beliefs. Through the eyes of such a relationship we can see a bigger truth about ourselves: who we are and what is our potential.

Last year, you came to the gay Pride in Minsk with your mum. It is very unusual for Belarus. How did you come out to her?

It wasn’t easy. One summer I went back to Minsk for holiday. All that time I had an awful feeling that I couldn’t speak to my mum openly. Eventually, I had enough of it: I found her in the kitchen, sat down and said: I have to tell you something very important: I am gay. She didn’t get it straight away. I re-phrased: I am homosexual. Then, I thought, she understood something. She sat down as well, very upset, and started saying something like: How are you going to be? I was hoping for grandchildren one day… Will you not marry at all? What people would say?… A bit later I understood that all that my mum knew about gays was from reading tabloids: gays are those who like celebrities spend their miserable lives in attention-seeking scandals.

It is a common image shared by the majority of people in Belarus, isn’t it?

Yes, it is a typical case of marginalisation taking forms of imposing peculiar identities. Later my mum asked me a lot of questions; I translated articles from English for her. She started sharing that with others which sometimes was successful, on other occasions – not: some people used it as a stick to beat her, to tell her that she was a bad mother. She and I, however, got much closer.


Does Belarus need the gay Pride?

In 2010, riot police dispersed the Pride in Belarusian capital. The story of your arrest became part of my play about Minsk. Now, GayBelarus, the NGO unrecognised by the state authorities, is trying to organise another Pride. Our theatre has pledged to stage a play in support of the Pride in Minsk. However, those who intend to join the event, have told me they were actively discouraged to do it, even blackmailed and intimidated. The most mind-blowing in all this was the fact that some LGBT activists participated in those campaigns arguing that the Pride in an autocratic country would be contra-productive.

It seems to me the state authorities tolerate gays and gay businesses as long as those are pretty invisible, as long as LGBT people do not make claims for human and civil rights. For the majority of gays in Belarus, compromising with the authorities is the easiest, most obvious way to survive in a homophobic society, with the homophobic government.

Then, gays themselves collaborate in sustaining a homophobic society. Sometimes it takes absurd forms as it was recently when the head of GayBelarus was turned away from a gay club.

The aims of gay entrepreneurs and the gay community are not the same. A stunning example here is Russia. Here, in Britain, I have often heard that Moscow gay clubs are by far more superior to those in Britain. At the same time, gay business in Russia is totally against any civil initiatives and protests. Those activists who dismiss the Pride have no other strategies for dealing with homophobia in the society. Siarhiej Androsienka, the head of GayBelarus, brings the reality of being gay in Belarus to the surface where it may become an object of reflection and discussion.

Recently, I was introduced to Betty Bourne, the pioneer of the British gay movement. He told me that two people participated in their first public action; four years later, the Pride counted on 14,000 participants. Then he asked about Belarus. I replied: in 2000, over one hundred took on the street; last year – just over thirty. How many, do you think, will dare this year?

Several dozens, perhaps. There will again be arrests. [In 2011, the Minsk Pride march took place on 22 October on outskirts of the city; about twelve participants made 200 meters with rainbow flags and then quickly disappeared to avoid arrests. – US.] I am afraid, the head of GayBelarus may be squeezed out from the country. When the leader of the first LGBT group left Belarus some ten years ago, it took several years just to overcome the paralysis and rebuild the melted LGBT structures.

I know a lot of well-educated and tolerant people who are against any marches and parades. They say protests must be spontaneous…

It is the same as to say that music improvisations must come from nowhere. We all know that good improvisations are prepared in advance. Also any street actions: someone has to sew flags, another – to prepare statements for media. Last year, the Pride was the number one news item on all non-governmental media websites in Belarus for two days and had a huge impact on political parties and NGOs; it made them to recognise that they couldn’t ignore the LGBT community and its demands.  It is important to keep the question of equality on agenda of various players in political and social life in Belarus.

What for? It seems almost everyone feels comfortable with the government’s quiet acceptance of status quo?

The life is comfortable as long as one is prepared to internalise the lie that hope for change for better is futile. The reality is pretty grim: majority of gays have not managed to build a happy life. One of my friends is working for a semi-governmental enterprise and being gay is a horrendous problem for him. He is paralysed by the fear of being outed at work, he is afraid to post his photographs on dating sites, afraid to meet other guys, to have a romantic relationship…


Neither sexual orientation nor faith are chosen

The last question: once you asked me about my religious affiliation and I said that I was an atheist. You cut short: I pity you. I have noticed that very often those who don’t believe in god, are keen to acknowledge that they respect those who do. However, there is no reciprocity from the people of faith; their attitude seems to be rather judgemental. Your quick dismissal of my reply can be an example of that. Why?

I think faith is similar to sexual orientation; it exists somewhere on the hardwired, biological level. Faith either is there or it is absent, it is not a choice and certainly not a moral choice. Hence presence or absence of faith must not be a reason for criticising or approval. Faith in itself is neither good nor bad, it just is or it isn’t there. However, what we do with faith or its absence is a totally different issue.

What to do with faith is pretty clear: people engage in spiritual quests, they may join churches or exercise their beliefs without any communities. Others, who do not have faith live as agnostics – “no one really knows whether there is God or not, it’s beyond anything tangible” – more or less indifferent to religions. I am comfortable with both stands. A more radical, atheist, worldview poses a problem for me: I don’t see an intrinsic value in rejecting other people’s ability and right to exercise their faith. Atheism is redundant without religion; it’s secondary, a reaction on something else. I don’t see any point in atheists fighting with religion.

Thank you for sharing your views – on sexuality, LGBT issues in Belarus and faith!

Thank you! It is important to write on gay topics for the Belarusian media – for many people it is rare, but so desirable nourishment.